Romantic spy mythology challenged
TORONTO — It was a bold Cold War initiative. The aim was to foment rebellion in the Sovietoccupied region of Georgia, on the Black Sea. And to this end, Britain’s MI6 intelligence service selected two young men from the exiled Georgian community in Paris to make an exploratory foray into their Communist-controlled homeland.
But within minutes of slipping across a remote section of border, one of them fell dead in a burst of gunfire. The other was captured, tortured and then killed.
The Soviets were expecting them — having been tipped off by Kim Philby, the charming but devious MI6 officer who had just hours earlier supplied these two youngsters with weapons, a radio, a bag full of gold coins and words of encouragement before dispatching them to their doom.
For Soviet agent Philby, the upper-class Englishman regarded by some as the greatest spy in history, it was another case of mission accomplished.
Did he experience guilt or remorse? Why even ask?
British writer Ben Macintyre, a bestselling specialist in the spy trade, doesn’t shock easily. But in researching his enthralling new history, A Spy Among Friends, he was shaken by the double-dealing Philby’s callousness.
“It’s the satisfaction Philby gets out of sending 20-year-old boys across the border … knowing they will probably be murdered on the other side,” Macintyre says in an interview in the office of his Canadian publisher. “There’s an icicle in the heart here. You have to be of a particularly brutal stamp. Not only does he not express any remorse about what happens to them, he actually glories in it.”
Hundreds of thousands of words have been written about Philby, the Establishment boy who embraced Communism as a student at Cambridge and was already a Soviet spy by the time he was recruited into MI6 at the start of the Second World War. But Macintyre sees good reason for yet another book about this brilliant but complicated man who finally fled to Moscow in 1963 a decade after he was first threatened with exposure.
For one thing, Macintyre feels it’s time to challenge a growing Philby mythology that tends to “romanticize him as a lovable rogue who pulled one over on the British establishment.”
“But when you tot up the cost of what Philby did, that kind of mythological cheery interpretation of him falls away pretty quickly.”
Macintyre says Philby’s treachery, especially after the Second World War, cost an “incalculable” number of lives. He compares Philby, who died in Moscow in 1988, to today’s Jihadists.
“He was a mass killer,” Macintyre says, “someone who kills for pleasure for a cause.”
A Spy Among Friends, published in Canada by McClelland & Stewart, may be history, but it reads like a lively thriller. Macintyre, whose previous bestsellers include Operation Mincemeat and Agent ZigZag, was able to take advantage of new archival material, including newly released documents from Britain’s MI5 security agency, and this helped bring new perspective to the scandalous story of the man whose high-ranking position in British intelligence enabled him to sabotage two decades of AngloU.S. Cold War spy operations.
Macintyre also gained access to the letters and diaries of Philby’s lifelong friend and MI6 colleague Nicholas Elliott. That explains the book’s subtitle — “Kim Philby And The Great Betrayal.” The nature of that betrayal? It was ultimately the betrayal of friends and colleagues who trusted him — Elliott and also CIA operative James Angleton who, as head of U.S. counter- intelligence, was later reduced to paranoia after learning the truth about his old pal Philby.
Macintyre credits spy novelist John le Carre, who contributes a fascinating afterword to the book, with showing him a way into his story.
“We were walking on Hampstead Heath, and I said, ‘What’s the best untold story of the Cold War?’ And he said, ‘Oh, it’s Kim Philby and ... Elliott.’”
There’s a schoolboy’s enthusiasm about Macintyre as he recalls this moment. But there’s also the incisiveness of a seasoned Times of London journalist as he explains how upper-class bonds of friendship — call it the old boys’ club or the old school tie — facilitated Philby’s entry into the British secret service, nurtured his rise even as he continued to spy against his country and ultimately protected him from exposure.
“I didn’t realize when I started, but it ended up being a book about class,” Macintyre says. Class loyalties came to the fore in 1963 when Parliament identified Philby as a key player in a high-level Soviet spy ring, but Philby survived. An intensely loyal Elliott and other friends and colleagues rallied to his defence, unable to countenance the possibility someone from their background could ever be a Communist spy. “Stacking up all the clues about Philby,’ Macintyre says “I was constantly surprised by the wilful blindness that stopped MI6 from seeing the truth.”
Was it simply that Philby, charismatic and charming, had seduced them into blind loyalty? Not exactly. The problem was Philby was superb at what he did.
Macintyre sees Philby as “a kind of romantic psychopath” driven by arrogance, elitism and a refusal to challenge his own beliefs. Philby’s notorious boozing and womanizing also suggests an addictive personality that extended to spying.
The book begins and ends with a fateful 1963 encounter in Beirut between Philby, now in a state of frightened, alcoholic disintegration, and Elliott, the old friend who now has full knowledge of his treachery.
Even then, old class loyalties were in operation and Macintyre has little doubt Elliott facilitated Philby’s flight to Moscow, under instructions from London to make this problem go away. The last thing Britain’s spy establishment wanted was to see Philby arrested and stand trial.
Ben Macintyre takes a new look at the career of traitor Kim Philby, above, whose activities brought about the deaths of an ‘incalculable’ number of people.
A Spy Among Friends Ben Macintyre McClelland & Stewart